You know the old saying about ties being like kissing your sister? Well, filling out a so-called "secondary" bracket after the first weekend of the NCAA tournament evokes a similar emotion.
As Shane Ryan and Spike Friedman pointed out over at Grantland this week, there's no real fun or worthwhile Sweet 16 pools on the market. While the duo go at length and find an admirable way to make the second weekend fun, the result is still a somewhat-complicated game that only the most hardcore and ridiculous college basketball fans (like me, and hopefully you) would go through.
Finding 20 or 50 people willing to make quarter-by-quarter picks is just a heck of a lot harder—especially if you're wagering firm handshakes or whatever people totally legally like putting on the line in March.
The great and underappreciated thing about the second weekend is that everyone's bracket is screwed; we're all in the same boat. Minus the couple of dudes (or ladies) who took one too many shots of tequila before filling out their bracket and somehow wound up hitting the Dayton-Stanford home run, Sunday concluded with yet another ritualistic tearing of the bracket and weeping into a pillow.
We were all Mercer Bears on Friday—except those of us whose weekends were ruined by having Duke in their Final Four.
But, alas, instead of setting ourselves up for another weekend of vast failure, let's instead go back to meat-and-potatoes prognostication. Meaning, let's take a look at these insane regions and try to make sense out of who will come out of them and reach the final weekend.
South Region: No. 1 Florida
This one hasn't changed since the beginning of the tournament, and nothing we've seen from the Gators makes this a bad play. After a bit of an understandable hiccup against No. 16 Albany in the round of 64, Billy Donovan's squad ratcheted up the intensity and throttled a Pittsburgh offense that had just a few days before been unstoppable against Colorado.
It's become a loser's gamble to bet against Dayton or Stanford, but I feel fully confident in the winner of UCLA-Florida coming out of the South. The Bruins were undervalued coming into the tournament themselves, with some (looking in the mirror) having them dumped to the side of the road against VCU in every bracket.
Instead, VCU was ousted by Stephen F. Austin on Friday, while UCLA has looked like the quintessential "peaking at the right time" team. Steve Alford has led his team to five straight wins, including a Pac-12 championship game triumph over Arizona that provides the most ammo for those taking the Bruins over their top-seeded opponent. Frankly, it's also been impressive to see UCLA thrive in consecutive contests where Kyle Anderson was only intermittently effective.
Jordan Adams has seemingly hit every shot he's taken for a couple weeks running, and Alford is seemingly over the tourney jitters that have been going on for a decade-plus. UCLA is a legitimate Final Four team if it can get past Florida—a mission that still seems improbable after a five-game winning streak.
The Gators are just appreciably better in nearly every facet of the game. Their ability to lock down on the inside—Florida ranks 11th in opponent two-point percentage this season—is going to make scoring difficult for a UCLA squad that loathes shooting from distance. Only three Bruins have taken more than 100 three-pointers, and they've taken only 27.4 percent of their attempts from distance.
That's not typically a problem when it comes to the NCAA tournament. "Live by the three, die by the three" is a paleozoic cliche, but none of the remaining teams rank any higher than 32nd in three-point attempt rate.
The issue here is figuring out where else UCLA is going to score. Florida doesn't foul at a high rate, is second in national defensive efficiency and plays an unrelenting style designed to grind opposing teams to a halt. The Bruins' biggest advantage is that they don't turn the ball over, but they don't defend consistently enough to give me faith they can hold Florida down long enough to take advantage of the extra possessions.
Either way, the winner of this matchup will walk to the Final Four.
East Region: No. 4 Michigan State
Again, I suspect we'll be seeing the true regional final in the Sweet 16.
Iowa State's chances of being this year's relative surprise Final Four team went down the drain with Georges Niang's season-ending foot fracture. North Carolina was the better team and outplayed the Cyclones in the round of 32 before a late hot streak sent Fred Hoiberg's team through.
Connecticut is mostly an enigma being led by Shabazz Napier's excellence and a relatively lucky draw against a flawed Villanova team.
Michigan State and Virginia, though, are no-questions-asked juggernauts. Any doubts about the Cavaliers' top-seed acumen after their opening scare against Coastal Carolina were assuaged by their utter thrashing of Memphis in the round of 32. Virginia—quiet, unassuming Virginia, the team probably selected least often among top seeds to reach the Final Four—is currently fourth in Ken Pomeroy's Pythagorean ratings.
Injuries play a factor here, and one rankings system does not define a matchup, but the Spartans are only the eighth-best team in Pomeroy's metric. They have a tendency to be uncharacteristically lazy on the defensive end, a trait you'd typically never ascribe to a Tom Izzo team. There is some noise in the numbers—just don't be surprised if Virginia makes this a far closer game than casual observers expect.
Michigan State is favored by two points as of Wednesday morning, per Vegas Insider, which feels about right. Those who questioned the effect a healthy Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne could have in sparking a tournament run quickly changed their minds last weekend. Payne scored a career-high 41 points against Delaware. Dawson followed him up with 26 of his own versus Harvard— also a career best.
Their re-entry back into the starting lineup has also given Izzo more of a comfortable rotation, featuring mostly six guys playing all the minutes. The five starters and Travis Trice were the only players to get more than 10 minutes against Harvard, as Matt Costello and Kenny Kaminski have been given less responsibility with Payne back.
Izzo's track record and the experience pervading through this roster makes Michigan State a slight favorite over Virginia—and therefore the top pick to come out of the East.
West Region: No. 1 Arizona
Of the Final Four picks we've discussed thus far, Arizona has the easiest road to the Elite Eight. San Diego State is a fine team, but its defense-oriented and undersized nature seems destined to be swallowed up by the lengthy and even more defensively minded Wildcats. Steve Fisher's squad has a chance if Xavier Thames goes off and Nick Johnson no-shows, but it's a natural end-of-the-road game.
When (OK, fine, if) Arizona reaches Saturday afternoon, the difficulty should ratchet up. Neither Wisconsin nor Baylor will be overwhelmed by the Wildcats' length, and they both have enough offensive firepower to be a real threat.
Baylor has been quite possibly the most impressive lowish-seeded team remaining. The Bears throttled two major-conference opponents in Nebraska and Creighton, the latter of which was a real surprise with Doug McDermott playing a prominent role. Mr. McBuckets was held to just 15 points, only three of which came in the first quarter, as Baylor keyed its entire zone around stopping the likely Naismith Trophy winner.
A shaky defensive team throughout the regular season, Baylor has shown vast improvement the last couple weeks. Isaiah Austin looks consistently engaged, and Scott Drew has length in the middle at all times to deter inside passing. If I'm Sean Miller, I'd be far less enthusiastic to see Baylor than Wisconsin—a team that was torched by Oregon before a late rally that helped them advance.
If you feel like taking a calculated risk here, go with Baylor. But the historical numbers are swayed heavily in Arizona's favor.
Since the advent of the 64-team format, only three No. 6 seeds have reached the Final Four. None of those teams have come since 1992. And even though Baylor has the potential to pull off history, Drew isn't exactly the coach I'd like to ride or die with when making a prediction.
Plus, one more thing: Arizona is really, really good. Brandon Ashley's season-ending injury cost the Wildcats depth, but their starting lineup can be put right next to Florida's for the best in the nation. Nick Johnson has played like the national player of the year finalist that he is, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has stepped up to give great minutes off the bench.
What's more, Arizona's ability to take away the three gives it a major advantage over Wisconsin. Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski won't be as affected by length as shorter players against the Baylor zone.
Midwest Region: No. 4 Louisville
My honest assessment of the Midwest: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
While Louisville is the mathematical favorite and probably the best overall team remaining in the region, you could talk me into buying any of the four remaining teams.
Kentucky was the top-ranked team in the country during the preseason. It just took down Wichita State in the best game of this year's tournament, played Florida within a point in the SEC championship game and already boasts a win over Louisville. That triumph was at home, sure, but there's no reason for the Wildcats to feel anything less than confident Friday night. They're coming into their own at the perfect time, and if you think Wichita State was a "weak" No. 1, your judgement is clouded by bias.
Michigan is the best offensive team remaining in the Dance, but it has won two wildly different games. Wofford held the Wolverines to just 57 points and throttled their offense in the second half. However, the Terriers managed only 40 points of their own against an unusual defensive muscle-flex from Michigan. A round later, Michigan scored 43 first-half points in a win over Texas. The Wolverines are still pretty wretched defensively—just not as much so as before.
Tennessee is, well, the enigma. It's the sixth-best team in the country, according to Pomeroy. It is not only the favorite to defeat Michigan, but it is also heavily favored over a Kentucky team that's already beat the Vols once this season. We'll just have to see if the Vols are actually for real or if their two-win run last week was merely a result of easiest schedule among Sweet 16 teams.
Then, Louisville. The most disrespected No. 4 seed in the country. The team that was dealt probably the most talented No. 13 seed in Manhattan. The team with another national player of the year contender in Russ Smith, a three-point gunner in Luke Hancock and a raw piece of 6'8" potential in Montrezl Harrell, finally finding his footing on the national stage.
The Cardinals may be the worst seeding decision in the modern history of the NCAA tournament. They're elite on both ends of the floor and play a nightmarish style that makes them perfect for deep one-off run in the Dance.
When it comes to picking a Final Four team from this region, there are any number of reasons to pick all four teams. But when it comes to pressing the final button, Louisville's matchup hell makes it the odds-on favorite.
All stats courtesy of KenPom.com (subscription required), unless otherwise noted.
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